Free speech rules come under court microscope

July 24, 2002

By Amy Tan

Chee Soon Juan interview transcript CNN TalkAsia

MBATTLED Singapore opposition politician Chee Soon Juan pleaded not guilty on Friday, July 26, to a charge of speaking in public without a permit in a case highlighting the city state's restrictions on free speech.

Chee made a speech at Singapore's lone public soapbox in February about three young Muslim girls who were barred from state schools after they wore headscarves to class.

The free-speech proponent and former university lecturer has been jailed twice in the past for refusing to pay fines for making speeches without a permit.

He faces a maximum fine of S$10,000 (US$5691) if he is found guilty on the charge under the Public Entertainments and Meetings Act. The hearing is expected to run until next Tuesday.

Chee, the chief of the Singapore Democratic Party, also is battling a defamation lawsuit brought by Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong and Senior Minister Lee Kuan Yew over comments he made during last November's general election.

Several opposition politicians have had to pay hefty damages for defamation in the past. Leaders of the long-ruling People's Action Party say they turn to the courts only to defend their reputations from unfair attack.

Speakers' Corner opened in a central park in September 2000, promising citizens a place to air their views in a country well known for its strict censorship laws.

Only Singaporeans can take to the soapbox and must register with police beforehand. The rules do not outlaw political topics, but say speeches should not be religious in nature or foment hostility among the Chinese, Malay and Indian communities.

"I do not need a licence to speak at the venue," Chee told the court.

A police inspector told the court Chee had registered to speak at the park and was warned not to touch on religious issues as part of the regulations. Chee also signed a form which stated he could be charged in court if he breached the conditions of Speakers' Corner.

Public prosecutors presented as evidence a videotape shot by a police officer of Chee making his near hour-long speech, which largely focused on the need for the state to allow Muslim headscarves in schools as part of racial harmony efforts.

Chee was given verbal warnings by the police after he began his speech to a crowd of about 50 people.

The headscarf furore over the schoolgirls was a highly publicised and sensitive standoff over the issues of religious freedom and the government's concern for social cohesion and its right to enforce a school dress code.